Solar-Powered Airships Might Be The Zero-Emissions Future Of Aviation
Old dog, new tricks.
The aviation industry catches a lot of flack for being a big polluter, and it isn’t undeserved! In 2018 alone, the global aviation industry emitted an enormous 1.04 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is the equivalent weight of 2740 Empire State Buildings, or 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. With an international climate apocalypse looming on the horizon, there is a desperate scramble to decarbonise this industry. As a result, everything from carbon-neutral bio-jet fuel to hydrogen jets and even battery-electric planes is being developed. But a recent study suggests that maybe planes are the wrong way to go. They found that solar-powered airships could cut aviation’s emissions by 95%! But how? And are these old-school visions of the future able to replace the globetrotting jet?
In this study, researchers envisioned a solar-powered airship of the same shape, size, and design as the LZ 129, also known as the Hindenburg. If that name rings a bell, it was the world’s largest-ever airship that famously burst into flames in 1937. However, this more modern version is simulated using up-to-date, lighter, and safer materials.
This virtual airship is also equipped with a ten-tonne battery, and the top of the blimp is covered in seven tonnes of lightweight, flexible solar panels. This setup means that the vehicle needs fewer batteries, as it tops up its charge while it flies, and, in turn, is lighter and has a much larger payload. This is why this ultra-modern Hindenburg can carry 100 passengers in sleeper cabins, each with 120 kg of luggage, which is about the same as the Boeing 737 with lie-flat beds.
So why would you use such a craft? Well, it solves one of the biggest problems with low-carbon aviation: range. The airship’s lift is provided by its lighter-than-air balloon, so no energy needs to be expended to make it fly, unlike aeroplanes, which use wings that require huge amounts of energy to be pushed through the air to create lift. This ensures that airships are incredibly energy efficient — so much so that this ten-tonne battery and seven-tonne solar array can provide enough power to comfortably propel the airship from London to New York. No other low-carbon aviation technology — apart from carbon-neutral fuel, which is extremely expensive — can travel such long distances.
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